The iPhone SE. Image source: Apple. 

Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) long-anticipated 4-inch iPhone refresh, dubbed the iPhone SE, is now available for purchase in many countries and, by the end of May, should be out in 110 countries, according to the iDevice maker.

The phone is targeted at two main audiences. The first is the set of smartphone buyers/iPhone owners who simply don't want larger phones but do want excellent performance and features in a compact package. The second is the set of folks who want iPhones but can't afford (or simply don't want to pay for) higher-priced, larger-screen iPhones.

The iPhone SE brings virtually all of the internal horsepower of the iPhone 6s to a 4-inch package, which should satisfy the first set of buyers. The device also starts at $399 without a contract, with the price moving up to $499 for the model with 64 gigabytes of storage.

It's definitely "budget" as far as iPhones go, but is it a bargain? Let's take a closer look.

Fantastic performance
The iPhone SE packs an A9 processor (Apple's fastest smartphone chip) and two gigabytes of zippy LPDDR4 memory. In performance tests, it performs identically to the iPhone 6s/6s Plus – arguably the fastest smartphones on the market today, particularly in CPU performance.

In real-world usage, the SE doesn't disappoint. Even the most demanding of 3D mobile games run extremely smoothly, no doubt as a result of the uber-fast A9 chip driving a relatively low-resolution 1136-by-640 display. "Performance per pixel" is off the charts as far as smartphones go.

The zippy CPU performance translates into an excellent web-surfing experience, something that I do quite frequently with my smartphones.

Solid rear camera; no opinion on the "selfie cam"
The rear shooter is identical to the one found on the iPhone 6s. Although the 6s' camera has been outclassed by a few Android flagships, the camera is still one of the best in the mobile industry. In a $650-plus flagship, not being the absolute best is worth criticizing, but in a $399-$499 phone, having a camera this solid is awesome.

As far as the front-facing camera, or the "selfie" cam goes, I don't take selfies and very rarely do video calls, so I have no opinion on it. That said, if this were a high-priced flagship, the relatively low 1.2 megapixel selfie cam would probably be a problem, but in a budget iPhone that gives the user so much elsewhere? I think this can be forgiven. And, after all, Apple has to make sure that there are still reasons to buy up to the higher-priced flagships.

The display is ancient but passable
The display is the same exact panel that first made its debut with the iPhone 5 in late 2012, meaning that it's north of three years old now. It's not a bad display by any means (it was stunning for a mobile device back in 2012), and I am sure that Apple is using it because it's very cheap to produce at this point, but it's noticeably less pleasing to the eye than the panels found on the iPhone 6/6s families of devices.

Compared to other mid-range Android smartphones in the same price class as the iPhone (say, the Nexus 5X), the display on the SE is outdated. Sadly, the same can probably be truthfully said for the displays on flagship iPhones -- Apple needs to step up its iPhone display game across the board.

Is 4 inches too small?
In today's world, large phones are all the rage, with virtually all major handset manufacturers -- save for Apple -- seemingly abandoning the notion of a high-performance, "small" smartphone. Personally, I quite like the ability to comfortably operate the device with just one hand without having to resort to the crutches like "reachability" that Apple implemented in the iPhone 6 series and beyond.

Web surfing is still a good experience, though arguably better on a larger device. Ditto for watching TV shows and video clips.

The iPhone SE could be good enough to be my main smartphone until the iPhone 7/7 Plus arrive. After using the device for a couple more weeks, I'll make my final decision as to whether I want to sell off my iPhone 6s and continue to use the SE until the new flagships sail on in. 

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.